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Death of A Salesman; How Willy Loman Sold Himself Short

Death of A Salesman; How Willy Loman Sold Himself Short

Willy Loman, the central character in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, is a man whose fall from the top of the capitalistic totem pole results in a resounding crash, both literally and metaphorically. As a man immersed in the memories of the past and controlled by his fears of the future, Willy Loman views himself as a victim of bad luck, bearing little blame for his interminable pitfalls. However, in my assessment, it was not an ill-fated destiny that drove Willy to devastate his own life as well as the lives of those he loved; it was his distorted set of values.

If Willy Loman had valued acceptance over popularity, individuality over conformity and devotion over materialism, he would have considered himself rich in his later years, feeling grateful to have a wife and two sons that loved him; and that would have been enough. Yet because he was unable to appreciate the important things in life, he ultimately opted for death instead, subsequently stealing the opportunity for true happiness away from those who had managed to find their own versions of peace prior to his selfish act.

What is truly ironic here is that the act of suicide is Willy’s warped way of showing Biff that he loves him, yet he never once comprehends the notion that his acceptance and understanding would have benefited his son a thousand times more than any insurance policy ever could. Even if the Loman family had succeeded in acquiring the insurance money, it would not have eased their grief. Thus Willy’s distorted perceptions of reality and what truly mattered to his family blinded him to the things that could have made him and those he loved exceedingly happy. Spouting off rhetoric such as “Riding on a smile and a shoeshine,” and “. . . personality always wins the day.” (p. 65) did little to convince Willy or those around him that happiness is that easily obtained. After all, he had not managed to obtain it and neither had his sons. Yet if Willy had loved his sons unconditionally instead of doling out his love in accordance with his their successes, he might not have felt like such a failure himself, because if nothing else, he would have been a success as a father.

Willy Loman could honestly take no pride in the values he had instilled in his two sons. Case in point: As he preaches that likeability, above all, is the ultimate goal of mankind, he neglects to qualify his statements by adding that one should be liked for being himself, not by adapting like a chameleon to whatever the surrounding circumstances dictate. The following passage superbly demonstrates Willy’s twisted perceptions of what it means to succeed in life.

"WILLY: That's just what I mean, Bernard can get the best marks in school, y'understand, but when he gets out in the business world, y'understand, you are going to be five times ahead of him. That's why I thank Almighty God you're both built like Adonises. Because the men who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want. You take me for instance, I never have to wait in line to see a buyer. 'Willy Loman is here!' That's all they have to know, and I go right through" (p. 33).

Perhaps Willy’s philosophy that charm, popularity and physical appeal are the catalysts that fling open the doors of opportunity is rooted in his feelings of inadequacy over his own deficiencies in these arenas. After all, Willy has built his entire life around the tenet that “The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell.” (p. 97), and his failure to sustain his beliefs has weighed unbearably heavy on his sense of personal failure. If Willy had been true to himself instead of fretting constantly over the image he and his family were portraying to society, he might have realized that true success is measured in the ability to contribute positively to one’s environment and pass on admirable traits to future generations. Success is not, as Willy perceives, measured by the number of acquaintances an individual has acquired or the balance of his bankbook. Had he realized this before committing suicide, Willy Loman may have been able to not only salvage, but also reconstruct his family and his life to a point where they would all have been able to truly appreciate life and the non-superficial pleasures it has to offer.

When Willy complains early on in the play, “The street is lined with cars. There’s not a breath of fresh air…The grass don’t grow . . . you can’t raise a carrot in the back yard.” (p. 17), he is basically demonstrating how barren and unfruitful he feels his own life has become. Yet what he fails to realize is that there is beauty all around us if we just now where to look and how to view it. Had Willy been able to grasp what his son Biff was trying to tell him about the true nature of happiness; if he had believed his son that his actions were not perpetrated out of spite, but out of the longing for a sense of self that Willy had never given him, perhaps Willy Loman would not have sold himself or his family short. Perhaps instead, he would had the strength of character to commendably walk away from the biggest sales gimmick of all time; The American Dream.

Arthur Miller, Death of A Salesman, edition: October 6, 1998, Penguin USA